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A conversation with Martin Atkins

March 4, 2011

In case you hadn’t heard, Martin Atkins is coming back to the MRC on Sunday, March 13. We had Martin here last year to do his acclaimed Tour:Smart seminar, based on his book by the same name. This is a guy who’s pretty much done it all — he’s played with Public Image Ltd., Pigface, Killing Joke, Nine Inch Nails and more and founded a label, among other things — and now he teaches and tours around the country, bringing his own brand of humor and perspective to the music industry. We got to spend some time on the phone with him today to find out what you can expect next Sunday. And if you’ll be in Austin for SXSW, don’t miss out on a second dose of Martin at the party we’re co-hosting with the Austin Music Foundation on Tuesday, March 15. You can RSVP here. In the meantime, here’s what Martin had to say.

So for someone who came last year to see Tour:Smart, what can they expect this year? What’s new?

I talk about this a lot actually. It’s tough teaching this stuff, especially anything that has to do with new platforms, advances in technology, because it just keeps changing. Usually at the beginning of my lectures I’ll do five, ten, fifteen, even twenty minutes sometimes on what’s happening now, so obviously that stuff is new. And I think this time I’m also doing just some different topics, like video editing, which is more and more important.

There is a thread running through some of this stuff, it’s very easy for people to think about putting up videos and they get pulled into buying a more expensive camera, a larger software package, something a lot more complicated and really all they need is a Flip camera. The important thing is just getting stuff up online quickly. And when someone’s trying to sell you a camera they’re not necessarily going to tell you that.

And just the constant themes – bands need help with getting their heads around more than making just one album, making just one tee shirt, and even bands that get it need help understanding that the old model, in every way, shape and form, is dead. Whether it’s the record label or staying in the dressing room and appearing to be more elite than the fans. The model across the board is dead. Even bands that get it need help saying, you’re right, you’ve got it, carry on, do more. My role is somewhere between distributor of information and some kind of Dr. Phil for the music industry. Oh god, did I just say that? But a lot of these problems , they come from the fact that the music business is such a special place. A mythical place. So many of these problems are  based in myth.

You talk a lot about the relationship in this ‘new model’ of the music industry. Practically speaking, for the artist, what does that mean?

What an artist needs to do is – and it’s tremendously liberating – is instead of spending the next two years polishing, re-working, fine tuning, polishing again this definitive album, this one piece that’s going to say, okay, this is who we are. It’s not about that anymore. It’s about the footage, here we are in the studio, and there was a flood. Here we are in the studio and our lead singer was just in an accident. Or here we are in the studio and this song actually is crap! Here we are working through 20 songs to find 10. It’s not about creating this perfect shiny model anymore, it’s about letting people see the process.

I think HBO and Showtime get it. They don’t just show boxing matches anymore. You never see a boxing match anymore without the 10-week lead-up to the boxing match. It’s not about watching the boxing match to see who’s the best boxer. We watch to see the guy we’ve invested 10 weeks in. we’ve watched him with his children, with his trainer, having a row with his wife, meeting the mayor, being jet-lagged. We tune in to watch that guy to see if he will triumph or not. And that’s what everything is now. If you can get your head around not being perfect. If you can be comfortable showing people your ass. Showing people the sketches of the album cover before it was thrown in the trash. If you can show people that whole process, that’s what’s interesting now. If you can just open yourself up. It’s not just about this one product a year, it’s more of a continuous flow of information.

At the MRC, our big focus is on empowering the independent artist, and so the idea of building that relationship opens up a lot of possibilities for them, because it’s something any artist can do, and do well. Where do you think that shift started to this new model?

Being me I’d have to say, you’ve got to back to 1977. At that time I used to practice five hours a day, the goal was technical supremacy. Supremacy over your own limitations and technical supremacy over everyone else. Who’s the best guitarist? Who’s the best, fastest drummer? And then punk rock came along. And there’s a fantastic graphic in one of these fanzines: Here’s a chord. Here’s another chord. Start a band. Don’t spend the next five years noodling around in your bedroom, trying to get it perfect.  Start interacting and do it now. Discover your own technique and do it now. It doesn’t matter. And really the best performances forgive those mistakes because we’re carried along by our love and investment in the artist. It’s not about technical ability anymore, though there is still a niche for that.

I read an interview with you where you said that friends don’t let friends start labels.

Traditional labels. So many people say to me, I want to start a label. First, oh my god, don’t. And why? The normal answer is, because I want to help a bunch of bands. And the problem with that is that people who want to help bands, and that includes me, we’re sensitive people, we care. You don’t have to look far to see a catalog of labels that started off like that. Touch and Go, Wax Trax. They nurtured all these bands, they grew successful and they left because the major label check books came out. All the things you’d think would make a difference — they slept on our floor, we cooked them dinner, we helped them with instruments when no one else would — it doesn’t matter, unfortunately. And I’ve seen so many people crushed by the lack of morality. Everyone talks about labels ripping off bands, but I’ve seen as much, if not more, of the opposite. It’s easy to say labels are evil, which is obviously just ridiculous. Labels are a labor of love for the people involved and they do want to help. I think it’s really tough. It’s a tough business. If you make a shoe, you can try the shoe on, you can walk around in it and say, I don’t like this shoe, my feet are bleeding, these shoes are obviously no good. And then you can say okay, and you can go and fix this and fix that and slowly and incrementally work toward this better place. The problem with an artistic, sensitive person that cares running a label is that you can invest 10 times what is expected for a band and get nothing in return. It’s such a risky business.

I had a band I invested hundreds and hundreds of hours, and money as well, and it was just like a hobby to them. It was difficult for them to tour because one of them had a great job. Okay, great, well you can go away for a weekend here and there. But they put up all these barriers, and they couldn’t grow. When you’re sensitive and artistic you get pulled into caring about music and believing in music and there’s so many other factors involved in a band’s success and a label’s success. It’s a minefield.

Bands can start their own labels. It’s never been easy. I did it in 1988. Everyone was doing it then. You don’t need bags of money to make 10,000 physical copies of an album. You can do experiments with digital stuff, experiment with low quantities of special items, signed copies for your fans or special editions. You don’t need a label, you can do that yourself. That’s an extraordinary amount of work, but you can do it.

I know you wrote Tour:Smart when you first started teaching. How long has that been now? Has the book been updated at all?

It’s been three or four years I think. It’s the same version – I don’t even want to open the pages about social media. I don’t know what we even said about technology. We might have said, get a fax machine! It’s so easy to look old really quickly. I think updating that book is on the horizon. Since then I’ve released Welcome to the Music Industry…You’re Fucked, which is kind of the antidote to Tour:Smart and to the business, really. It’s just like 140 pages, the size of a paperback book. It’s tiny compared to Tour:Smart. It’s the same approach, trying to communicate information differently.

And now I’m just finishing up Band:Smart. About 700 pages into it, and we’re editing and adding lots of great contributors. Not sure when it’s coming out.

What’s the angle of Band:Smart?

Everything from deciding to start a band to where is it I can go, from the studio to the legal aspects, personalities, the human side, the merchandising, the skill sets. All of that stuff. The consequence of people, some different strategies, kind of like Tour:Smart 2.0 really. Four or five of the areas in Tour:Smart are updated in there. A couple of people had said to me, you should write a book to help bands, and so this is the answer to that.

Who are some of the contributors this time around?

We’ve got well over 100 contributors, and one of my favorites at the moment – and I’m not in Band:Smart promotion head space, I’m actually doing a lecture today on real-world studio techniques – and one of the contributors is George Massenburg. The last time actually that I did this lecture it was at the University of Memphis. And one of the guys running the program, Jeff Cline, says to me, could George Massenburg sit in on your lecture? Oh Christ, no pressure! Giving a lecture on studio technique and George Massenburg is sitting right there. And we had breakfast the next morning actually, and he has a great attitude. He’s obviously a very well-respected old school guy with a very new school attitude. I love that George contributed to the book.

A lot of your talks and your writing seems to be about dispelling myths about the industry, and kind of removing those illusions of grandeur some people have. How do people handle that? Surely everyone doesn’t take kindly to the tough love approach.

Those people stay away. I did a graduation speech, I don’t remember when it was, but I began by saying, you know, hey, instead of doing the whole, ‘You’ve got the world by the balls, I wish I was your age, go get em!’ thing, I said, ‘You’re fucked!’ And it wasn’t just to students, parents were there, as well. You are so fucked! This isn’t the end of your education, I’m still learning now. I was just learning about QR codes the other day. I’m still learning and I was in a band with Johnny Rotten and Pigface and Nine Inch Nails and I’ve written these books and been to China and had a label and I’m standing here telling you I’m still learning and it’s never going to stop.

Some people don’t like that. The people who get it, love it. Oh my god — we’d much rather know what we’re up against so we can deal with it rather than be blindsided. There’s a movie, Cinderella Man. About this famous boxer from the early 1900s, I forget his real name. He wanted to fight even though it was incredibly dangerous. He was dealing with all these economic pressures, all these things that were out of his control. He wanted to get into the ring so he could actually see what he was fighting and anticipate the punches. And that’s the battle. There will be some people who want to run away screaming with their ears bleeding, but I keep ringing that bell, and you have to. The music industry is such a dangerous place to be. People can lose all their friends, all their money. The industry preys upon people’s hopes and dreams, and at its best it fuels people’s hopes and dreams. It’s a dangerous place to enter without knowledge.

After all the speaking you’ve done and touring and meeting bands, what would be the one piece of advice you’d give?

Have more than one thing to sell. Because you have to give something away. And this is something else I’ll talk about (at the March 13 seminar) because it’s much more accepted now than it was two years ago or even one year ago. You have to give stuff to people and it doesn’t work if you just have this one big shiny album. If that’s the only thing you have, not an album from a live show, or a demo or an acoustic album, you’re screwed. But when you give someone a new album for free, they will buy your acoustic album or your other album. Everyone needs to understand that and get busy. The moment anyone in your band is complaining or not participating with positive energy, I’d put them on a probationary period. If one person out of five isn’t pulling their weight, you’re working on 4/5 or probably 2/5 of your energy level because that person’s energy level drags the good people down. It brings people down. You need everyone firing on all cylinders and exploring every possible option.

One of the bands actually that’s going to be involved in the event in Austin, Asleep, is a good example. You know, Tour:Smart is a few years old but we’re actually hearing more stories this year about bands using the strategies and taking them to another level, it’s so encouraging. Asleep is one of those bands. They were out there handing out flyers on the street at SXSW a year ago, and they saw all these other bands handing out flyers and they were like, we’re just like robots out here. And they took a Tour:Smart attitude.

You have to differentiate yourself, and once you’re out there doing it you can see what others are doing and do something different. So they built a 15-foot high robot with a PA system in it, flashing lights and a smoke machine. That robot sold more tee shirts the first time they wheeled it out than they ever had at a show. The robot became more of a star than the band! They were jealous of the robot! (Laughs.) But it was magnetizing people to come and see them. And it caused us to want to work with them. It’s an example of working hard and thinking and that’s the triumph of bands who do it. You can’t just be creative in the studio anymore. You have to build the robot, get the attention you need and make people say, wow. I love these guys and I love their creativity and I’m going to listen to some of their music.

Elizabeth Cawein

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